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Killing comedy: Chicago improv theater closes after owner is accused of racism


Comedy has long been a target of woke politics. In Chicago, activists started a petition accusing the owner of the iO Improv Theater of an “individual history of racism.” The petition, which started with five student permormers at the theater, demanded that owner Charna Halpern, “acknowledge the harm this has caused to individuals, communities, and the comedy world as a whole.”

In addition to the blanket apology, the petition demanded Halpern hire an “outside BIPOC Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator.” Actually, the petition didn’t want Halpern to hire her own black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) diversity coordinator, it wanted her to let a committee of BIPOC and LGBTQ performers and students make the hiring decision, she just had to pay for it. As a result of these demands, made in the midst of a pandemic when the theater has been closed, the iO Improv Theater is now closing for good. So what exactly was the racism that prompted all of this? The activists won’t say:

In the case of iO, the petition accuses Halpern of having an “individual history of racism,” a charge I asked some of the petition organizers to explain. They declined to answer any questions — but, for such a key aspect of the petition, it seems this would’ve been an easy question to answer. In Halpern’s eyes, the accusation is a mean, untrue, personal attack. “These people don’t know my history,” she told me. “They don’t know what I’ve done for this community.”

About two years ago, Halpern created the diOversity scholarship, which provides free classes to nonwhite, LGBT and disabled students in an effort to increase diversity at the theater. As one iO improviser observed, “The diversity on stage and in teams is incredible.” The era of only “lanky-white-dudes-in-comedy,” they said, is waning.

In fact, Charna told me the petition organizers themselves were members of the diversity program, receiving free classes from the theater…

The iO was in a precarious situation with ridiculous property taxes, a $6 million loan that needed tending, the mandatory lockdown, etc. Fortunately, Halpern had corporate clients lined up for online classes, and had hoped to be able to sustain the theater that way. But after the petition accused her of being a racist, the clients canceled. “I was devastated,” she said, “and then forced to this decision.”

So they’ve not only ruined this for the owner and for themselves, but for all of the other students at the theater and the many employees who worked there. The organizers of the petition said this was “difficult to hear.”

As many of you probably know by now, iO Chicago will not be reopening. This news obviously comes with a lot of complicated feelings for many people. Ultimately, it is difficult news to hear.

This petition was created out of love for our community, specifically the community at iO. That building was a creative home for so many incredible performers, many of whom were not treated with the respect they deserved. We were so looking forward to iO post-pandemic and more importantly, iO post-petition. We really believed that our demands were going to be met and that iO was going to become the warm, inclusive, welcoming place that we thought it could be. We cared about iO and wanted it to be better for us, for our friends, and for folx to come.

Thank you for signing this petition. Thank you for sharing your stories. Whatever happens next, please remember the demands of this petition and why you chose to sign it. Remember your experiences and the experiences that your friends and peers have shared. Chicago improv will always be here. It will always funny. From now on, let’s make sure it will always be safe and equitable.

Safe and equitable? Right because that’s what everyone wants when go out to see comedy, a safe space where no one’s feelings ever get hurt. The theater’s About Us page noted that iO started as Improv Olympics and over the years has worked with a long list of top comics. This image shows some of the familiar faces.

Cancel culture, which emanates from far-left identity politics, has really been at odds with comedy for years now. Mel Brooks has said it. John Cleese has said it. Pete Davidson has said it. Most late night comedy has become political “clapter” humor which doesn’t even try to be funny. No one is safe from being professionally trashed if they offend the woke scolds. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s Dave Chappelle’s very-NSFW take on cancel culture.

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